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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Death and Destruction as Ideology Trumps Rationality



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“The rage of imbeciles is filling the world, “ is a sentence I’ve just come across in the fine book in which the French and Catholic Georges Bernanos expressed the dismay he felt at the time of the Spanish civil war. Worse was soon to come, of course.

On the face of it, the Hamas onslaught against Israel is indeed the rage of imbeciles. It is the third such onslaught in the space of the last seven years.  Nothing has come out of the first two except death and destruction, the major part falling on the Palestinians whose cause Hamas claims to be promoting. The third spells more death and destruction.

Not imbeciles at all, the Hamas leadership consists of hard realistic cynics, experienced in conspiracy and crime. Why then do they fire barrages of rockets that twice have provoked a severe Israeli response, and are doing so a third time likely to be more devastating still? To Israelis, as to all Westerners with their costs-and-benefits calculations, this repetition is imbecilic. To Hamas, however, any other course of action would look like surrender and dishonor, both of which are worse than defeat. Since codes dictated by ideology trump rationality, it’s not open to doubt, nor even to discussion.

The recent call for ceasefire illustrates the non-meeting of minds that follows from these cultural differences. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer to suspend bombing was presented by Hamas as evidence that they had him on the run. The mere suggestion of peace was enough to land him and Israel in a position of weakness. Vice versa, Hamas felt that the moment had come to act like the stronger party, demanding concessions and firing off yet larger barrages at civilian centers.

The sole positive course left to Netanyahu is to show that Israel is not in fact the weaker party. Israeli troops have accordingly moved into Gaza. The one and only way to make sure that there will not be a fourth Hamas onslaught down the road is to neutralize and destroy the rocket arsenals in Gaza. Disengagement of those troops without having first destroyed these stock-piled rockets would be evidence of genuine imbecility — worse is then bound to come, and quite soon too.

 

Why Israel Must Enter Gaza



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The time for decisions faces the Israeli government. In recent hours, the Islamist group Hamas has fired 250 rockets into Israel. Some have had a range of 70 miles, reaching the urban centers of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Hadera. The defensive system known as Iron Dome is destroying these incoming rockets. So extraordinary is this technological feat that no Israelis so far have been killed or wounded. Retaliating, the Israeli air force has taken out a number of missile launching sites in Gaza. That is merely a palliative. Hamas is known to have hundreds more rockets in store. The sole realistic counter-measure is an armed incursion to capture and neutralize these arsenals.

Two previous attempts by Israeli forces to put an end to Hamas aggression stopped short of this definitive step. Hamas was therefore left in a position to start again as and when it chose to. Left to fire rockets another day, Hamas seems to have inferred either that Israel did not have strength sufficient for the task of ensuring its own safety or that outside powers would pressure it and so rescue Hamas from the consequences of its policy. And sure enough, here come Washington, London, the United Nations, and the media urging Israel to show “restraint,” or in plain language, leave Hamas to dictate its campaign.

“Gone are the Days of Defeat: Victory is Close,” is a slogan current in Gaza. Hamas leaders speak as if they are operating from a position of superior strength, willing and able to commit genocide on Israel. To anyone with a memory, this will seem like the run-up to the Six Day War of 1967 when Gamal Abdul Nasser on behalf of Egypt was welcoming the assured and imminent end of Israel. Israeli victory in that war changed the disposition of the Arab world. The global jihad now under way is changing it yet again, this time setting all against all, sect against sect, community against community, in vicious self-perpetuating spirals. Hamas attacking Israel is different in name but not in motivation from Sunnis attacking Alawites in Syria, or Shiites attacking Kurds in Iraq.

Forty thousand Israeli soldiers are now in position along the Gaza border. Should they wait there and eventually turn for home leaving Hamas in possession of its rocket arsenals, they will be in the position of having made a threat that they did not carry through. The world would once again applaud, and Hamas crow that it is winning. Prevarication in pursuing the national interest has discredited President Obama and would similarly discredit Prime Minister Netanyahu. The choice before Netanyahu, then, is a true test of the man. 

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The ISIS Caliphate and Other Empires of Fantasy



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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS for short, are a threat to the settled order of the Middle East. A new empire is taking shape before our eyes, complete with the change of authority and frontiers that are the objectives of all empire-building. Abu Bakr and ISIS may look like another tribal horde riding over the horizon to take power. However they have the very different purpose of restoring the Caliphate with Abu Bakr as Caliph. Muslim fanaticism motivates them to civil war that is actually a war of conquest, complete with barbarities like the public crucifixion of anyone whose ideas are different. Abu Bakr and ISIS, it has to be said, have got this far only because his opponents have been so reckless and inept. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, created conditions leading to civil war, and President Obama removed the American forces that alone could have kept the peace.

The real Caliphate was at best honorific, even fictional. The title of caliph had been vested in the Ottoman sultan from the Middle Ages on, and was abolished after the First World War without any fuss. The Khedive of Egypt was then a pretender who got nowhere with it. Restoration of this ghost is a fantasy, as unreal and irrational as the comintern or the Thousand Year Reich, with the same sort of emotional appeal to believers.

Another empire in the process of formation is the European Union. The EU is of course not to be compared to the Caliphate, though both share the essential feature that they operate without the consent of those they claim to represent. The process whereby someone called Jean-Claude Juncker has emerged as President of the European Commission is blindingly obscure. Virtually no Europeans have ever heard of this former prime minister of Luxemburg, just as virtually no Arab had ever heard of Abu Bakr. An unseen and mysterious horse-trading took place. Apparently he is a federalist, which in the context means moving towards a United State of Europe. This attempted revival of the Holy Roman Empire is a fantasy quite as irrational as Abu Bakr’s Caliphate. And there’s nothing to be done except to wait and see what price will be paid for these fantasies.

In Hungary, Remembrance of Things Past



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John O’Sullivan of our parish lives in Budapest and edits The Hungarian Review, a bi-monthly journal in the English language. In the current number, I reminisce about Hungary at length. My parents owned a property there called Pusztaszabolcs, and my father, half Welsh and half English, fantasized about settling down in the country as an eccentric Hungarian gentleman. The property came through my mother’s mother, and she owned a house at Kapuvar, a town near Gyor in Western Hungary. She bred race horses at a stud called Lesvar, and the family rented a shoot at Pokvar nearby.

I first went to Hungary after the 1956 revolution. Everything was inconceivably depressing. Bullet holes everywhere. Soviet patrols. Nobody dared speak to you. Freedom, normal life, had been stolen and would never return. For years afterwards I used to revisit the country to check that pensions my grandmother was paying got into the right hands. The country was corpse-like.

Coming in from the airport now is enough to bring a lump to my throat. Budapest has returned to being a great capital city. The communists could not even run Gerbeaud’s, one of the world’s greatest cafes — it is now worth flying to Budapest just for that. Playing truant away from my desk (and from David Calling too, apologies!) I roped John into an expedition into the country in a Proustian search for lost time. We found what we were looking for. The house at Kapuvar has become municipal offices. When I visited Pokvar in the 1960s it was being used as a Soviet tank garage and looked completely dilapidated. Restored, the house now belongs to the Minister of Finance. Only the staircase remains of the interior my parents knew but it was enough to link past and present. The Soviets shot, slaughtered, or stole the horses at Lesvar, and nothing remains of the stud that we could find. I finished my essay by observing that it isn’t the loss of property I mind, but the chance to know this country and these people from the inside. Why, I have twice tried, and failed, to learn Hungarian.

Socialism, said John at one point, is a sickness, and incurable. Hungary gets a bad press because its Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a conservative. Also because Jobbik, a neo-fascist party, has seats in the parliament. The Hungarians I spoke to all think that Jobbik has lost whatever popularity it had, and from here on can only decline.

John has been in London to speak at a conference on the legacy of Mrs Thatcher. When next we meet, I must find out if he thinks present-day Hungary is an outsanding example of how right she was.

The Doors of Hell Open in Iraq



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The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,  ISIS for short, is a scratch group of men who have found a cause that bands them together and offers them power. Arab history has scores of examples of it, from the days of the Prophet Mohammed down to the present. When victorious, the power-seeking group sets up a state that serves its cause until the next power-seeking group comes along. This method of state-formation has every disadvantage; it is inefficient, temporary, and unjust with in-built violence. The entirely predictable consequence has been that Ottomans, British, French, and Americans have done the state-building for Arabs.

The state ISIS aims to build is pure fantasy. A caliphate is supposed to unite the Arabs on the grounds that Islam is their one and only nationality, in itself a complete identity. There is no caliphate, and if ISIS were, successful a number of self-appointed caliphs would suddenly appear and settle the issue in bloodshed. But this group has already destroyed the old state-system that was a vestige of the past. There is no state now of Syria or Iraq and no prospect of any outcome except violence. The U.S. and the U.K. have armed and trained security forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon, and yet they all run away at the first shot, not because they are cowards, but because they are asked to defend a state that is not a state to them. Now it is absurd to rush extra weaponry to security forces unable or unwilling to use them, because it is sure to be a bonus to ISIS.

A catastrophe is arising. The destruction of the former state structures and the fantasy of a caliphate open the space for Sunnis and Shias to test their mutual religious opposition to the very end. ISIS will most likely next plunge Lebanon into chaos. The Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and Turkey will have to take a position against the Shias of Iran. Further down that line is regional war involving Israel.

President George W. Bush is vindicated. The sole way Iraq could have continued was under a permanent American presence that gave and guaranteed state functions. President Obama’s withdrawal of American forces is already a historic error. They alone could have kept the peace. Arabs have a phrase to the effect that some mistake has opened the doors of Hell.

President Obama has opened those doors.

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Much to Brussels’s Chagrin, the People Have Spoken



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Throw the bastards out! That time-honored war cry wraps up democracy. The Sunday Times, a repository of genteel language, has lately run an editorial with the title, “The People Have Spoken, the Bastards.” This referred to the European Union elections in which a whole lot of Euro-sceptic parties made gains that momentarily seemed to favor the reforms that are necessary and that the majority hanker for. A few days have been enough to show that the numbers are meaningless, the bastards have not been thrown out but will carry on as before. It used to be that far-flung peoples imitated the practice of Europeans. Now Europeans are imitating the practice of far-flung people.

The symmetry of the Egyptian and Syrian elections is marvelous. The winners, the Egyptian Abdul Fattah el-Sisi and the Syrian Bashar Assad, declared votes in the range of 90 percent or higher. The single opposition candidate in Egypt got 3 percent, and the two opposition candidates in Syria got 4and 3 percent. Observers report all the usual underhand tricks.

Nobody is taken in by charades that have nothing to do with legitimacy, choice, representation, and other features of democracy. They are shows of strength, pure and simple. Sisi is making plain that he will continue to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood. He will arrest, imprison, and sentence them to death, and if need be, execute some by way of example. Bashar Assad is making plain that he will continue to hold power even if he has to destroy Syria in the process and kill tens of thousands.

Things are less fraught in Europe for the moment, so the comparison doesn’t hold exactly, but those who run the EU are making plain that it is the public who will be dismissed as a result of elections, not them.

A Revolt against the EU’s Bureacratic Despots



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It’s an earthquake, say the pundits as they shake their heads over the elections to the European Parliament in Brussels. That parliament has hitherto been a rubber stamp to the political arrangements and deals done behind closed doors by the ruling class in Brussels. Suddenly it has become the one and only arena in which the inhabitants of Europe can express their anger and fear over what the ruling class has been doing to them. Decisions over which they have no influence bedevil them. Austerity, falling living standards, mass immigration including men and women of very different cultures, regulation, intrusion into privacy, new crimes and conflicting legal systems have materialized out of nowhere. European politicians and the people they are supposed to be representing appear to be unrelated.

These elections have thrown up substantial political parties whose main plank is to get out of the European Union. Defenders of the EU stigmatize these parties and their voters as reactionaries, certainly racist and maybe anti-Semitic. The United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, has taken England by storm, for instance, but rather than woo them, Prime Minister David Cameron writes them off as “fruitcakes.” Actually they are protesting against a future they never asked for. Faced with unconditional surrender to the ruling elite, growing numbers of voters choose to rebel.

I happen to have been reading a new book, a collection of letters written by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of History at Oxford and a brilliant man with an understanding of the whole sweep of history. He refers to someone I’d never heard of, Professor Samuel Dill, also of Oxford, who as long ago as 1898 wrote a book about the end of the Roman Empire. The London Library had this book. In elegiac language that hasn’t dated, Dill might just as well have been writing about the EU as it proceeds on the selfsame way to disaster. The Roman Empire did not have to experience what Dill calls “the great social catastrophe” but this was brought on by “a ruinous system of finance,” a corrupt civil service, a torrent of oppressive laws, “bureaucratic despotism,” (yes, the phrase is his) the destruction of agriculture and the decline of the military profession. Barbarians like the Goths, Vandals, and pagan tribes were welcomed as immigrants but in the end they turned on their hosts and captured Rome and the Empire. Dill finishes his account of one thoughtful writer who “watched with anxious foreboding the darkness which was descending on the West.”

It might be a good idea to reprint Dill and hand a free copy to each of the 50,000 or so bureaucratic despots of the EU who have contrived to repeat in close detail the mess that put paid to the Romans and no doubt are preparing to fight their critics to a finish.

The Prince and the Putin



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In a conversation with an elderly lady in Canada who was a refugee from wartime Europe, Prince Charles let drop that “now Mr Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.”  This is true in some respects, exaggerated in others.  Both men have justified aggression on the ethnic grounds that they were defending people of their race.  Both have intervened across a border to take advantage of turmoil they attribute to others but which in fact they themselves had stirred up. Opponents of Putin have been murdered and falsely imprisoned, but of course that is in no way comparable to Hitler’s planned exterminations.

“He is an educated man. He is a well-brought-up person,” Putin rebukes the Prince. “This is unroyal behavior. This is not what monarchs do.” It is rather — how shall we put it — enjoyable that a former KGB officer has this kind of advice to give.

Nigel Farage and the Future of Britain



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Elections will be held in a couple of days for the European Parliament in Brussels. Nobody really gives a toss. Nobody knows or cares what goes on in that parliament. I did a straw poll asking people who is their representative in Brussels, and nobody knew. I have no idea who represents me.

And yet these elections matter, because an outsider is cracking the hardened mold of British politics.  His name is Nigel Farage.  He has founded, formed and now leads the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP for short.  Initially a pressure group for getting out of the European Union, UKIP has blossomed into a political party. Some polls show that it will obtain a higher vote than the conventional political parties. Farage has achieved this break-through by force of character. He speaks his mind about the loss of national independence, the perversion of democracy, the replacement of English law and custom with foreign law and custom, uncontrolled immigration, gay marriage, corruption, and the way the world is going generally. People haven’t heard anything like this before; they have had it forced upon them that only bigots think like this and if they are wise they will shut up and hide. And Farage has a sense of humor too.

UKIP flourishes because the personalities and politics of the Conservative and Labour parties have lost touch with the country. Confronting Farage, they have no idea what to do except bad-mouth him as a racist, nationalist, and crackpot among crackpots. The media follow suit. The press campaign against Farage is personal and poisonous. Such toadying up to the hack leaders of the main political parties goes to show that journalists are also out of touch with public opinion.

The likelihood is that UKIP will cause a sensation in the European election, and nothing will then happen.  The established parties have too tight a hold on power for Farage to break it.  Even if he fails, he will have dramatized today’s great issue: What sort of country does Britain want to be?

Government Done Right?



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Barack Obama and John Kerry and their spokesmen happily spread the word around the globe that Israel is on the wrong track, and this negative image takes deeper hold all the time.  What, one wonders, will they think of the fact that an Israeli court has just condemned a former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to six years in prison on corruption charges. Offhand, it comes to me that plenty of former prime ministers  have been murdered in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and so on, but none put on trial for corruption. Olmert’s lawyers say he will appeal, so the judicial process essential to democracy is flourishing.

That’s not all. The former President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, is already serving a prison sentence for sexual offenses. Offhand again, I can’t think of any country in which a former president and a former prime minister are simultaneously sent to gaol. Is this breaking new ground?  Oh, nobody mentions that the judge who sentenced Katsav is an Arab. Is this injustice and apartheid, or a most remarkable example of a country living up to its ideals?

The Limitless Terror of Bashar Assad



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Even in peacetime it used to be quite difficult to enter Syria. Once I found myself at the Lebanese-Syrian border, caught in a throng of men pushing and shoving to reach a booth in which sat a Syrian officer. I couldn’t face this and was about to abandon my journey when a small boy ran up, told me to put ten dollars into my passport and follow him. Stretching an arm behind him to the back of the booth, the officer extracted the dollar bill, stamped my passport and I was on my way.

These days it’s really dangerous. You have to find a fixer who knows the routes in, and he has to be trusted not to denounce or betray. Someone who has just been there has been describing to me how things are. Wasta is the Arabic word for getting what you want through connections and influence and dollar bills. Wasta has now turned into universal banditry. Everybody and anybody might be kidnapped held to ransom, and maybe killed even if money is paid over. In some places there is little or no food, and armed men break in to steal what there is. This is soon going to be worse because there won’t be much of a harvest this year. The contrast is grim between the parts of cities that have been flattened unrecognizably, and the parts that survive.

The number of the dead is now 165,000, a reliable figure. Of these, 2,000 have been killed by chemical weapons, the rest by conventional weaponry. The chemical weapons consist of sarin and chlorine, and their purpose is not so much to kill as to instil fear. Their use makes people feel that the Assad regime has no scruples, no limits.

A story is going the rounds that Syrians are delivering to Iraq sarin missiles originally engineered in Iraq and smuggled out at the time of the Second Gulf war. What Saddam Hussein sent out to be safe Bashar Assad is returning to be safe. So after all, President George W. Bush was in fact quite right to overthrow the double-dealing old warmonger.

Putin’s Brazen Humiliation of Obama



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Previous occupants of the Kremlin would stand shoulder to shoulder with Vladimir Putin. From the mid-16th century to the end of Communism, Russia conquered territory the size of Holland every single year. At the treaty of Turkmanshai, Czarist Russia swallowed whole provinces of the Persian Empire, and Stalin nearly added to these gains. Russian support of today’s Iran is also predatory. The ayatollahs evidently believe that they are superior negotiators, and they may well be right, given the ease with which they are twisting President Obama round their fingers.

Putin does not even bother with twisting Obama, he merely sends in special forces without identification badges and lines up armored columns. He has the whip hand. Volodymyr Rybak was a pro-Ukrainian politician in the pro-Russian town of Slavyansk. His murder greatly increases the tension. Kiev is exaggerating when it claims that Russia wants world war, because there is nobody to fight it. But war will allow the dismemberment of Ukraine and the absorption of territory from which to make the next advance. When I heard the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov say that this crisis arises because the West wants territory, I knew the die is cast. Those previous occupants of the Kremlin perfected this tactic of accusing others of the crime they themselves were about to commit. The murder of Rybak may not provoke Kiev to retort with arms, in which case some other unfortunate Ukrainians will be murdered.

Occupation of territory is not the end of it. Putin is in the process of humiliating Obama so brazenly that international perceptions of the United States must change. He may see himself as the avenger of Mikhail Gorbachev. Each time Secretary of State John Kerry promises to apply more sanctions in the indefinite future, the impotence of the United States to take immediate and effective action becomes more visible and the humiliation of Obama more certain. I wonder whether NATO can survive. Oswald Spengler forecast something like this a century ago, and I am off to the library to re-read his gloomy book.

On Gabriel Garcia Marquez



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Many people have thought Gabriel Garcia Marquez a great writer. It is a commonplace to bracket him with Cervantes as a giant of Spanish-language literature. In particular, he is credited with a style of writing known as magic realism, whereby strange things pass as ordinary and the law of cause and effect is suspended.

A humanist myself, I hold the view that every man’s death diminishes me. Marquez the writer is something very different. If it is to matter, literature has to say something about the world as it is and our place in it. Magic realism does the exact opposite. To make of everything just what you want is to make nothing of everything. Marquez is not so much writing as sleepwalking. Would it make any difference if his books were One Hundred Years of Cholera, Love in the Time of Solitude Autumn of a Death Foretold?

Playing havoc with reality presents a false view of the world, one in which everyone feels sorry for himself because good and bad, right and wrong, are interchangeable. Self-pity is the basis of Marquez’s popularity. Anti-Americanism is the form of self-pity that seems indigenous to Latin America and Marquez was its virtuoso. He expressed, so I read, “principled opposition to the global status quo dominated by the United States.” 

Dictatorship is the main arena in which good and bad proves interchangeable. Marquez could hardly wait for Pinochet to be overthrown in Chile, while in Cuba he was hero-worshipping Fidel Castro, a criminal with far more blood on his hands. The limit of credulity was reached when Marquez described Castro as an intellectual.

Presidents Clinton and Obama lead the chorus of academics and literary critics singing praise to Marquez. This reveals how natural the internalization of anti-Americanism now is. But when Marquez was in need of proper medical care, it was in a Los Angeles hospital that he found it. Nobody knows why another Latin American writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, one day punched Marquez in the face. What symbolism, though, in this encounter between two incompatible mind-sets. Vargas is free from self-pity, therefore free from anti-Americanism. At some time in the future, the independent and vital Latin America that Vargas stands for will exist with no dictators in sight, and then Marquez will be seen as the seller of a snake oil that did no good to anybody.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the True Values of Brandeis



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Brandeis University awarded Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree and has now withdrawn it. In a peculiarly disgusting statement, Frederick Lawrence, the president of Brandeis, claims to have uncovered opinions of Ayaan’s that are not in accord with the values of Brandeis. Adding insult to injury, he invites Ayaan to a debate.

Where do they find these weasels? I know Ayaan, and I am familiar with her writings. She is a steadfast champion of human rights. She suffered genital mutilation as a child in Somalia and thinks this is a rite that must be abolished for the sake of common humanity. Millions of women are misled into thinking that this mutilation is Islamic, and Ayaan puts the record straight.

Any objections so far? Ah, Ayaan has renounced Islam. I am not at Brandeis and now would never go there, but I can visualize faculty and students huddling in little groups and caucuses to say that she betrays the Third World, is un-Islamic, and if people have a custom of cutting up the genitals of little girls, who are we to stand in their way? To call customs like that barbarous and ignorant is nothing short of racist. Pens out, everybody, sign a petition to President Lawrence.

Ayaan tells the truth, quietly but irrefutably, and that is why the Left hates her. As a Somali and a born Muslim, she is supposed to be militant, anti-West, and fist-clenched in a caricature that is actually close to racist. Let them sign their petitions, these people are beyond the reach of argument and intelligence. But this President Lawrence is another matter.  Wastepaper baskets are made for petitions got up like this. We are lucky to have Ayaan, and this disgraceful moral and intellectual defective cannot stand up for her. Not in accord with the values of Brandeis, indeed. If those values mean anything, he should be withdrawn from office, right here and now.    

John Kerry’s Dangerous Diplomacy



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I don’t know what Secretary of State John Kerry does to those he’s up against, but he scares me — to paraphrase a comment of the great Duke of Wellington on his soldiers. The ease with which others get the better of him is dangerous on several fronts. It is probable that under his watch, Iran will have the best of two worlds, in effect possessing a nuclear weapon around which there is enough uncertainty about finalization to protect it from military counter-measures. The Russians hold Ukraine in the palm of their hand, and are in a position to choose between manipulating the overthrow of the government, civil war or prolonged instability until Vladimir Putin gets what he wants. Kerry’s resort to the dread words that this is “totally unacceptable” underlines that here again, there are no real counter-measures.

The Middle East is tending as a whole towards the stark alternatives of anarchy and tyranny that comprise the region’s history. It is incomprehensible that Kerry thought this was a moment for Israel and the Palestinians to make a final peace on long-standing and irreconcilable issues, and all within a short fixed period. Did nobody in the State Department tell him that President Clinton tried this out and an intifada with many dead was the result?

The dozen trips to the Middle East, the sessions with Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, are evidence of fantasy. There’s more: Israel was supposed to release a hundred Palestinians serving sentences for murder, and in return Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel, would be released. Detached from reality, this proposal has come unstuck before it could be completed. Being detached from reality makes things worse. Hopefully, this marks the end of the peacemaking fantasy and both sides can live with reality, namely a stand-off until such time as compromise is possible. Kerry has nonetheless committed the gravest mistake that a diplomat can make, namely to raise expectations that have no prospect of being met. Ethnic, sectarian, and nationalist violence in the region is rising to higher levels, and it will be good luck if he turns out not to have added to it.

 

Defeatism in Afghanistan



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The pull-out from Afghanistan is under way. The British have handed their command of Helmand province over to the Americans. For the past seventy or so years, the British have been mounting ceremonies of withdrawal in which the flag is pulled down, a commanding officer praises the soldiers, and a chaplain has a trope about sacrifice. 448 British soldiers were killed in Helmand and hundreds more have been horribly maimed by anti-personnel explosives. A consensus is forming that these deaths and injuries have been in vain, and the campaign should never have been fought. Roger Boyes of The Times, a serious and generally robust commentator on foreign affairs, has the ingenious refinement that clearing off home is “a form of military success,” and in addition will take away the raison d’être of the Taliban. In his view, a vibrant middle class is going to install a functioning state, by voting for it, if you please.

Far from taking note of their vanishing raison d’être, the Taliban are as prominent and violent as ever. They do not have the education or sophistication of Roger Boyes, but they are able to distinguish between victory and defeat. Coincidental with the ceremony of handing over Helmand, a sniper from the Coldstream Guards spotted the approach of some Taliban. The one he shot was wearing a suicide vest; it exploded and killed five other Taliban as well. Are tribal and religious fanatics like that really going to be convinced to give way to voting?

Defeatism began with Iraq. The mess there is the centerpiece of the argument that a campaign of this kind serves no useful purpose. But Iran’s expansionist and anti-Western policy is responsible for the mess, not us. The American military was the only possible check on Iran’s attempts at takeover, but President Obama withdrew the troops, leaving not even a token garrison. Of all his incomprehensible policy decisions, this is the most incomprehensible. Enemies of the United States were handed an easy victory in Iraq, and they look set to have another in Afghanistan.

Hypocrisy Celebrated with Sentimentality



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The life and times of Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn had the richest flavor of hypocrisy. Born an aristocrat, he inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate but dropped it and then constructed a phoney proletarian personality as Tony Benn. Marrying a rich American heiress ensured that he would not have to suffer the penalties of the hardline socialism he was wishing onto everyone else. A pacifist, promoter of a Soviet-style economy, giving Soviet Communism the sole credit for winning the World War, praising Mao, he was wrong about almost everything, and oh! so sincere about it that large parts of the public overlooked the fact that Tony Benn was only exercising in modern guise the privilege of Viscount Stansgate to tell everybody else what to do.

For royalty and prime ministers there is a ceremony known as lying in state, whereby their coffin is placed in Westminster. Mr. Wedgwood Benn was not given the full works, but his coffin was nevertheless placed in Westminster — the last person honored in this way was Mrs. Thatcher. Next to Parliament and Westminster Abbey is Saint Margaret’s Church, traditionally associated with weddings and memorial services for aristocrats. The funeral service for Mr. Wedgwood Benn was some sort of ultimate instance of double standards. Here was an assembly of Communists, IRA leaders, oddballs like Mr. George Galloway who so much admired Saddam Hussein, and Michael Heseltine, the Tory politician who brought down Mrs. Thatcher. The theme that seemed to unify the congregation was that they had all done damage to Britain. At the close of the service, they sang The Red Flag not once but twice.

What explains this hallucinating nonsense? I suggest that Mr. Wedgwood Benn can be sentimentalized like this precisely because he achieved nothing and turned out to be a danger to nobody. Had he been successful and Britain gone through the revolution that he preached, half this weeping congregation would have been suddenly dry-eyed and busy cutting down the other half. Failure has its mercies.

Telling the Truth about Weakness



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Coincidental positions taken by President Obama and Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli Minister of Defense, tell us what a sad state we have fallen into. Obama has just received Mahmoud Abbas, the spokesman for Palestinians on the West Bank, and he came out saying that Abbas has “consistently renounced violence, has consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states.” This of a man who has done everything in his power to replace the state of Israel with the state of Palestine, and is frustrated only because he lacks the means.

Ya’alon at that same time was telling an audience in Tel Aviv that the United States is “demonstrating weakness.” Ya’alon is responsible for his country’s security against an Iran that is all the time more deceitful and aggressive. When it comes to negotiating, he emphasizes, the Iranians are better. He puts it directly, “This is a war of civilization. If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world.” So the conclusion for Israelis is straightforward. “We have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

The Obama administration immediately claimed to be shocked and angry and mystified. Of course nobody wants to be told they are demonstrating weakness when that is exactly what they are doing on all fronts, with Russia, Iran, China, Egypt, even the Palestinian Authority. Telling the truth used to be considered not just a virtue but a necessity. One of these two men is confronting unpleasant facts, and one is hiding from them. I know whom I would choose to take decisions for my country.

Of the Dead, Nothing Unless Good



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De Mortuis nil nisi bunkum is a truth currently being illustrated in Britain.  Consider first a Union boss by the name of Bob Crow.  1983 was the year this man showed how well he could look into the future by joining the Communist Party. He exploited his Union to wage class war unremittingly. Planning the latest shutdown of the London subway, he himself happened to be with his girlfriend on a cruise in Brazil. His abuse of power and privilege was feudal in character. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson had to deal with the consequences.  Crow’s sudden death in time to avert strike action prompted Boris Johnson to call him “a fighter and a man of character” whose loss was “tragic,” when in reality for the traveling public it was timely.

Consider next Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a cast-iron member of the ruling establishment. Inheriting the title of Viscount Stansgate and a property to go with it, and marrying an American heiress, he forged a completely phony political career for himself under the would-be proletarian guise of Tony Benn.  Doing whatever he could to transform Britain into a Soviet-style economy and society, he actually succeeded in breaking the Labour Party and unintentionally paving the way for Mrs Thatcher. A greater abuse of power and privilege is hard to imagine. Now that he has died, the BBC naturally praises him on the news and in talk shows, but mysteriously the Conservative press almost unanimously thinks he was a political giant and will be much missed.

I am not given to rude language, and so can’t bring myself to quote what Kingsley Amis has to say about Wedgwood Benn in his Memoirs.  The insult on page 298 of that book is one I have found nowhere else.  I have reason to agree with Kingsley and object to the line taken these days in the obituaries that Wedgwood Benn was decent and meant well. Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist, openly threatened me with violence for what I had written.  Wedgwood Benn did it more surreptitiously.  I had imagined that he had published memoirs under the title I Did It, and I wrote a spoof review of it forPunch, a humorous magazine. Peter Jenkins was a political writer on the Guardian, but in spite of that quite a friend. He didn’t enjoy telling me that Wedgwood Benn had sent him round. He’d read my spoof review, did not enjoy it, and he would choose his moment for revenge. I’d been warned.

 

Roaring Bill Wins Again



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“Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.”

Hilaire Belloc’s famous couplet springs unbidden into the mind these days. Vladimir Putin couldn’t make it plainer that he thinks it right to fight. He began by devastating Chechnyna, killing an estimated hundred thousand Chechens who were of course his own citizens. No wonder he thinks it perfectly natural to support Bashar Assad in the killing of an even higher number of his own Syrian citizens. Next he invaded Georgia, and has unilaterally incorporated into Russia sovereign Georgian territory. Nobody objects. Israel builds a settlement on the West Bank and the White House and the United Nations have fits. Putin steals another people’s land and the White House and the United Nations have nothing to say.

Now it is the turn of Crimea. A land-grab, pure and simple. Russian troops are there in force. It’s always the same argument, that they’re defending Russians. It’s always the same scenario, that they find expatriate Russians who claim to need being defended. The former pliant Ukrainian President Yanukovych is in Moscow where his presence is taken as cover for the Russian troops. In a few days’ time there will be a referendum arranged to finalize the grab.

Putin is not Adolf Hitler, not by a long chalk, but he has taken a leaf from Hitler’s playbook. Hitler claimed to be defending Germans when he overpowered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Danzig, Memel, and other points east. He had Czech president Hacha brought to Germany; he fixed referendums. Hitler told lies about Bolsheviks; Putin is telling lies about Nazis and neo-fascists.

The very first reaction of our Ebenezers in high places is that fighting is so wrong that anything that could possibly be considered resistance is also wrong. A historian friend of mine has studied the many times Obama has said that yet another anti-American head of state is “on the wrong side of history.” Which is more remarkable, the meaninglessness of the idea that history has sides, or the inbuilt patronizing sneer? In any case, it raises the white flag. Roaring Bill wins again. Next stop a move westwards, towards the Baltic republics where expatriate Russians can be worked up to demand liberation. The expression on the face of Polish foreign secretary Radek Sikorski has suddenly changed from smugness to fear that Putin will overplay his hand as Hitler did, but this time nobody intends to help.

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